WAFIC seeking clarity on Auditor General report

Following the recent release of an Auditor General’s report on the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s (DPIRD) regulation of commercial fishing, the WA Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC) has called for clarity on a number of items and issues raised, while also stating there are questions over some assertions made in the report.

Leading the list is what they claim is a conflict of functions between compliance and fisheries management, with an added belief that having local officers creates a risk of over-familiarity and under-enforcement.

“The report reads like it was written by someone who has never experienced regional living and simply doesn’t appreciate that having local staff is a true asset, not a conflict.

“Having personally lived in small communities for decades, it is clear to me that the most effective police, or compliance operatives, are those that participate in community activities and are embedded in the social fabric, that way they know exactly what’s going on and locals will disclose illicit activities to them if there is a strong level of mutual trust,” said WAFIC Chief Executive Darryl Hockey.

Mr Hockey added that having a knowledge of the interactions of local people and personalities is a clear advantage as the inside knowledge makes it easier to discover if there is anything occurring outside the regulations.

WAFIC points out that perceived conflicts also sit with a number of other agencies, including the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, which includes the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). The department’s website boasts that by retaining responsibility for all water and environmental regulation, it is “creating a ‘one stop shop’ for industry and developers and greater opportunity for streamlining and simplifying regulation,” so it is not only regulating valuable and highly profitable water allocations, but also managing sensitive environmental measures protecting the resource.

Mr Hockey also says the independence of DBCA is challenged with perceived conflicts, with the supposed protection of terrestrial reserve areas, concurrently undertaking damaging prescribed burning activities and attracting fee-paying tourists to place increasing pressures on valuable biodiversity areas.

“We also just saw a clear example where the EPA allowed dredge spoils to be dumped into the Shark Bay ecosystem, which potentially risks its World Heritage listing. On one hand you have the need to protect the environment, while on the other an industrial development agenda is at play. This is definitely a clear conflict and in this case the developer won, while the environment and the MSC-certified commercial fishing industry were the clear losers,” Mr Hockey added.

“We also see solar salt projects being approved on the Pilbara coastline which damage the inter-tidal ecology, including destruction of valuable fish nursery areas. Despite our formal appeals the discrete and cumulative impacts upon valuable marine habitats are certainly not receiving adequate protection.

“So therefore it’s a bit rich to try to single out DPIRD over its compliance regime.  The agency is in a super tough situation as it was directed to close offices and carve off many of its regionally-based staff and close regional offices during the Machinery of Government process, and is now being unfairly criticised for its local resourcing levels.

The report also noted that compliance officers struggle to retain a strategic focus as they may head off to undertake a planned task but become distracted by other events.

“This is like saying an ambulance on the way to attend a call-out shouldn’t stop to attend a car accident along the way. Sometimes the best laid plans of any compliance officer, or first-responder, will be distracted by urgent, unforeseen events. It’s an everyday aspect of regional living,” Darryl said.

Overall, WAFIC believes DPIRD compliance is doing a good job with the very limited resources the department has to work with.

“Given the scale of their operations, the compliance team should be congratulated on what at times must appear to be an impossible task. Nevertheless their commitment never wanes and they are certainly very strict taskmasters.”

WAFIC is further concerned that the workload on DPIRD’s compliance and management staff tasked with delivering the new Aquatic Resources Management Act is further compromising the Department’s ability to deliver key compliance and management outcomes and will result in serious deficiencies in service delivery to the commercial fishing sector in coming years.

“It’s also a real worry when we see officers being redirected to chase cattle or feral animals in the Kimberleys.  The Fisheries side of DPIRD has been unfairly forced to endure massive cuts over recent years and they certainly can’t deliver 100 per cent of a service with 60 per cent of the required resources, so the government needs to top up DPIRD’s budget if it wants it to deliver a greater outcome.”

WAFIC is therefore urging the government to assist the resolution of some of the issues outlined by the Auditor General’s office by adequately funding and implementing the proposed digital transformation project; including the rapid implementation of real-time reporting for recreational demersal fishing; and to urgently address the level of financial resources allocated to fisheries management and compliance.